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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1599

Senator EGGLESTON (5:52 PM) —As I was saying earlier, this alcopops tax is no more than a revenue-generating exercise by the government, disguised as an attempt to address the problems caused by excessive drinking among teenagers. However, I would suggest that if the government were genuine in this endeavour, rather than an increase in tax focused on a preferred drink of young people, the broader issue of alcoholism in the Australian community would have been addressed. If a tax were to be introduced, I would suggest it should have been to put in place a volumetric tax on alcoholic drinks whereby drinks are taxed according to the percentage of alcohol they contain so that a low-alcohol-content drink would have a low tax and thereby be cheaper, and a high-alcohol-content drink would have a high tax and thereby be more expensive.

There is no doubt at all that alcoholism in Australia has a huge impact, a horrendous social cost, and also has huge costs to industry in this country. The social costs include the impact on families of domestic violence, marital disharmony and breakdown, a huge cost to the social services budget looking after people claiming social security as a result of breakdowns in marriages, unemployment benefits and so on, and then there are the long-term or subtle effects such as underachieving children who are victims of alcoholic parents and broken marriages. As we all know, there is a huge impact of alcoholism in Indigenous communities. We have read about what has been happening in the Northern Territory and in the north of Western Australia in towns like Fitzroy Crossing and Falls Creek and Kalumburu. Alcoholism is wrecking those societies. I remember attending a seminar that BHP ran in Port Hedland, where alcohol was labelled the biggest drug problem Australia faced and caused a huge cost to industry as a result of workplace and other injuries, loss of time at work, decreased efficiency as well as domestic social problems outside of the work environment.

According to the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, the carnage left by alcohol misuse is staggering. Around one-third of Australians put themselves at risk of alcohol related harm in the short term, such as premature death or disability, from events such as road injury, violence and assault, on at least one occasion in their lives. Almost 10 per cent of the population consume alcohol in a manner that puts them at risk of long-term harm, such as cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, cardiovascular disease, suicide and so on. It is estimated that nearly five per cent of the total injury and disease burden in Australia is attributable to alcohol. Alcohol is the major cause of drug related death among young Australians. Elevated blood alcohol levels are implicated in one-third of all road traffic accidents, and they include accidents involving people under the driving age, strangely enough.

As I was saying in my earlier, rather short contribution today, if we in Australia are to deal effectively with the problem of binge drinking and alcoholism, then the government has to be serious about finding solutions. The cost of alcohol to consumers is an important factor in curbing excessive drinking, and tax, as I have said, is an important factor in the cost of drinks. I believe that a volumetric tax is the most obvious way to use this fact in reducing the consumption of alcoholic drinks in Australian society, and thereby mitigating, if not substantially reducing, the social consequences of alcoholism in Australia.

Only recently in Scotland, the government recognised this and announced a plan to introduce a standard price per unit of alcohol consumed in Scotland. This was done to tackle the $3.5 billion cost of alcohol abuse in Scotland—the Scots of course are very famous for their habit of indulging in the drink which carries their name, but the social consequences of that habit are huge. I can understand why the Scottish government has sought to do something about this. Similarly, pivotal research in Australia in 1999 by Curtin University of Technology, which conducted a study into cask wine drinking patterns in the Northern Territory, found that with the introduction of a surcharge the average consumption of alcohol was significantly reduced, which of course is the principle the Scots are applying in their legislation. As I said earlier, currently cask wine, with an average of 12 per cent alcohol, is taxed at about 6c per standard drink compared to beer, which averages three per cent alcohol and is taxed at a whopping 43c per standard drink. In other words: lower alcohol beer is taxed at a rate of seven times higher than the high-alcohol-percentage cask wine—QED.

With a volumetric tax on alcohol, by contrast, the tax on beer would be one-quarter that of the tax on wine. I think the implications of that should be obvious to anyone who gives it any consideration whatsoever: the price of low-alcohol beer would be substantially lower than the price of a glass of wine. As I have said, it is widely recognised in Australia that alcoholism is one of the most serious causes of social problems in our society. The fact that the Rudd government has selectively increased the tax on one form of alcoholic drink—namely, alcopops—underlines the sheer hypocrisy and insincerity of the Rudd government on this issue. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this alcopops tax is nothing more than a revenue-generating measure rather than a serious attempt by the Rudd government to deal with the serious problems caused by alcoholism in our community—which, as I have said, could be ameliorated were a volumetric tax on alcohol introduced.

I also said earlier that the AMA has for years supported the concept of the introduction of a volumetric tax on alcohol, as has the Productivity Commission, the Australian Council of Social Service, the National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse, the Salvation Army and the Alcohol Advisory Council of Western Australia. The Rudd government must be aware of the position of these bodies, of the extent of the damage alcoholism causes on an ongoing basis in the Australian community and of the need for the federal government to develop a strong, broad policy profile to counter these problems. The alcopops tax is certainly not such a broad measure that it will do very much of anything to deal with the general problem of alcoholism in our community.

Given this, for the government to pretend that the alcopops tax was anything but a short-term revenue-raising measure is absolute nonsense. After almost a year of this tax being in place, the Rudd government has been unable to demonstrate that the alcopops tax has had any impact on teenage binge drinking; in fact, teenagers have just shifted back to full-strength spirits and bought themselves cans of Coke to go with them. Accordingly, I call upon the Rudd government to demonstrate some leadership in dealing with the problem and the horrendous consequences of alcohol abuse in this country. While any serious attempt to counter the problems of alcoholism in Australia would include education, law enforcement, industry involvement and rehabilitation services, an important part of any solution has to be the introduction of a volumetric tax on alcoholic drinks so that there is a cost incentive to encourage drinkers to move to low-alcohol drinks across the board. In the meantime, this cynical fraud—this alcopops tax—should be rejected by the Senate as a means of indicating to the government that the Senate wants the government to come up with some real solutions to the problems caused by alcoholism and alcohol in general in our society.